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Thread: Sergeants

  1. #1
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    Sergeants

    I was thinking of putting together some cold-war memoirs of the army, and call the collection 'Olive Drab.' This would be the first chapter. See any glaring problems?





    Sergeants



    Many of the cadre had made rank in Korea, quickly, under combat conditions. Now the conflict was over and they were back in the States. It was peacetime, but for some of them it would take more than a few months, or even years, to put aside the red reality of battle. The sights they had seen now had to be replaced by the new vision of peace.

    They were expected to become teachers. They would teach raw and tender recruits how to become soldiers. Worse, peacetime soldiers, taught by wartime
    soldiers. Tech sergeants, sergeants first-class, master-sergeants; old soldiers with old eyes, though their biological ages went from twenty-one to thirty.

    The leader of my platoon was a master-sergeant, three stripes up and three down, three roofs and three rockers. About as high as an enlisted man can go and still be in the trenches. He was now a platoon-sergeant, a leader and teacher of numskulls with no war to go to. He was twenty-six. He had seen it all.

    Sergeant Powell had enlisted early in the Korean conflict. It was expected of him. His father was a Major-General of the Army. Powell was also expected to apply for Officer's Candidate School, a stepping-stone to West Point. He entered service as a private but did not remain in that rank long.

    Soldiering and leadership came naturally to him and men did not hesitate to follow his lead. As corporal he was a squad-leader, prodding, haranguing, getting his squad in and out of tangled and thorny situations. Within a year he was sergeant first-class, rank coming quickly as the top ranks were decimated around him. Waiting periods were waived to keep the positions filled. Field-commissions were offered him several times, but he wanted to remain with the men.

    The thought of brass on his shoulders was distasteful to him. He had been raised around men with brass and ribbons and when he listened to their tales of glorious battles he did not see himself on a hill overlooking and directing the carnage below. He knew his destiny was to be at the front. He knew his hands would be bloody and that men would follow him. Now he looked about him and saw fresh and shiny faces staring at him, in new green uniforms. He shook his head and smiled.

    My turn arrived for K.P. duty and I shuffled through the cave-dark early morning to the mess-hall. I could feel the coastal California fog folding around my face, even though I couldn't see it. A dim yellow bulb illuminated the back door of the kitchen; it made a halo in the fog. The door was still locked. A half-dozen other privates grumbled and griped, lighting cigarettes and yawning dog-like.

    I didn't dare sit down on the damp steps for fear of going to sleep. Army cooks needed little provocation for exhibiting their tempers. The worst jobs would be heaped upon the unlucky private who had incurred the wrath of any cook.

    Finally the door was opened and we were fortunate enough to be seen first by the head-cook, a sergeant first-class. He was known as the least barbaric of the kitchen staff. He allowed us a quick cup of coffee and a final cigarette. Our first break would come about five hours later.

    After the breakfast rush was over and the trays were clean and stacked and the huge pots were washed and dried and hung from ceiling hooks, we were allowed to escape to the outdoors, now sunny and pleasant. Burlap bags, large, lumpy bags waited for us near the steps. Pots and potato peelers were issued to us and we began the endless chore celebrated in song and story; army privates peeling potatoes. At least we were outside, where we could smoke and talk.

    As we began our assault on the bulging sacks, Sergeant Morris, the head-cook, and several other white-clad staff came out and stood around, smoking and talking. Morris looked us over.

    "You guys are in first platoon?"

    "That's right, Sarge."

    "So you've got Powell. What do you think of him?"

    Us potato-peelers instinctively circled our mental wagons, for we knew enough to be careful of people with rank, when we had none. We had witnessed privates who, hopeful of special privileges, had given information, gossip, to interested and friendly superiors. Those unfortunate blabbermouths had been quietly transferred to other units and began their training over again. Although there was nothing in our head-cook's manner to raise our suspicions, we were nevertheless cautious.

    "He's all right."

    "He sure likes to march!"

    "Yeah, he's like a goat! Don't seem like anything can wear him out."

    "Seems like a good guy."

    Sergeant Morris knew the way the game was played and understood our wariness. He was an old soldier with nothing to gain from gossip. He was just an old cook who liked to talk. The other cooks smirked and smoked and lounged around; they could tell a story was coming. Morris lit a fresh cigarette and sat down on the company lawn.

    "Yeah, he's O.K. I don't know a non-com who'd say anything against him. Don't let me stop you from skinnin' the spuds. Go on with what you're doin’." He arranged himself more comfortably and told one of the cooks to bring out some coffee. He lit a cigarette from the one he had only partially smoked.

    "I was in Korea already when Powell got there. I was a corporal and he was a private. You could see he took everything real serious. You know, he paid attention, didn't miss anything. He was stiff as a boner on a donkey, and only a private! He was serious-minded. I don't think he smiled for a week. Then he got a couple patrols under his belt and he loosened up.

    "Next thing I know, he's not in my squad any more, but he's in another platoon and he's got his own squad. And he's a corporal!" The head cook paused as an assistant came out with cups and a steaming steel pitcher. He lit another cigarette and we filled our cups. We did not pause in scraping skins from potatoes.

    "And he didn't stay corporal long, either. Third platoon lost Sergeant Peterson and seven or eight guys and I find myself in third platoon and there's Powell with another stripe."

    The other cooks were smiling and the one who had gotten the coffee said, "Tell 'em about the hatchet, Sarge."

    "Oh, yeah," says Morris, "you've got to know about that. But first off, you can't tell by looking at him, you know, because he's kind of a quiet guy. Around here, anyway, since we got back. But old Powell, he was a hellion; what I mean, he was just a guy like you never saw for fightin’! Seemed he could smell out the slopes; he found them before they found us. And we had to run to keep up with him, too! I don't know why, but he had to get there first. Give me some more coffee. When you get the spuds peeled, cut 'em in half." Morris got his re-fill and set fire to another cigarette.

    "These boys here, some of 'em, can tell you. Powell used to carry a little chrome-plated hatchet on his belt. And it was sharp. Damn, I think he filed on that thing every night; you could prob’ly have shaved with it. I won't go into too many details, but he put the fear into lots of folks. I don't mean just the gooks." The rest of the cooking staff nodded, unsmiling.

    One of the cooks said, "Yeah, folks on both sides. Your sergeant didn't like to be interrupted in his work. Kind of like walking in on a man in a whore-house, you know? When you're doin' what you like to do, you don't want nobody disturbin' you. Durin' a fire-fight you just stayed away from him like you would the slopes, safer that way."

    "That's about right," said Sergeant Morris. "Old Powell would wade in with his stutter-gun and his hatchet and start tearing things up. His eyes were open real wide, you know, those gray eyes of his, like they might pop out, and he'd get like he didn't see you. We left him alone. Course, we were busy, too. There were a couple problems now and then, with new lieutenants, but they learned fast."

    One of the cooks said, "They did. Some of 'em hadn't seen much blood, maybe a couple dead bodies…but when they followed Powell and somethin' happened and the **** started…ah, some of them young officers went runnin' back to their mama's aprons."

    Another cook picked up the thread. "Yeah, they went straight to the C.O. and got slapped down like they was a red-headed step-child! Didn't take long to learn about Powell, and his daddy bein' a general, an' all." The cook who had been interrupted got back to his place in the dialogue.

    "You got it! But it wasn't just his old man, it was Powell hisself! He never done it, that I know of, but I believe that little hatchet didn't know what the enemy looked like, you know? It just had to be aimed, like a gun. I'm tellin' you, there wasn't an outfit around that ****ed with Powell … or his boys. The C.O. didn't much come out of his command tent, except for makin' rounds once in a while. He didn't have to. Hell, with Powell around, wasn't nobody goin' to get rowdy or do nothin' stupid."

    Us potato-scrapers glanced occasionally, one to another. I didn't think the sergeants would go to such lengths just to mess with the minds of the troops. It seemed much too elaborate. I tended to believe the story, and I could tell by the faces around me that my mess-mates believed it, too.

    "That's nothing," said another cook, "tell 'em about MacArthur, Sarge."

    Sergeant Morris looked ready to relate yet another Powell anecdote, but glanced around, looked at his watch, and climbed to his feet.

    "MacArthur's going to have to wait. You guys get me started on old bull****, and we get off schedule. Come on, you jokers! I'll learn, someday, not to let you clowns get me started. I start on a story and there goes the day! Get the hell in the kitchen before the Captain comes around! Get the spuds on the fire!"

    So lunch was prepared and we KP's were on the serving line. As lunchtime ended and the mess-hall emptied, the routine of cleanup began again. I couldn't get the stories out of my mind. But there was too much to do and I had no chance to ask any of the other members of my platoon about it. When the kitchen crew had eaten, the whole process began again and preparations for dinner started.

    Being constantly on the run made the time move quickly; I was amazed when Sergeant Morris told us to begin setting up the serving line again. The end of a day of kitchen police was getting closer. The food was served, the thousand comments we had heard at the previous meals we heard again, but we no longer answered or smiled. The desire to throw food at, or skewer with a long-tined fork was squelched by a roaming cook who was only too used to the feeling; he kept us calm by his own threats to us.

    Mercifully, the last diners were passing: we could see the end of the serving line. Sergeant Powell and three or four other cadre were the last to be served. As he passed in line, he gave each of us a knowing little smile; at least it seemed to me the look was knowing. The thought came to me that I would rather be a green recruit than a gabby head-cook, any day. But he passed on by and one of the cooks told us to grab a tray and eat.

    The last pot was hung, again. Each of us could smell ourselves and said as much. A shower and a bunk, get off our feet, smoke a cigarette, go to blessed bed. One of us asked a cook if we could go, and he shouted to Sergeant Morris, but he said to hold on and wait out on the steps. As we lit cigarettes the head-cook and his assistants came out the screen-door carrying buckets of iced beer. They motioned for us to sit and handed each of us a frosted bottle. Sergeant Morris arranged himself on the grass again. He lit up and took a long drink from his bottle.

    "O.K," he said, "I don't like to start a thing and not finish it. Robinson here wanted me to tell about MacArthur. Well, I guess me and Robinson are the only ones left who were there and heard it. We were having a quiet day. I don't think we heard a shot or a bugle or had a mortar-round come in all day. We were hanging around the HQ tent, all the non-coms, waiting around to see if any mail came in and the clerk comes out and says to Powell that he has a phone-call. Well, we were all outside the tent so there wasn't any problem with hearing, so we sat down and lit up." So Morris lit up and was handed another beer.

    "You understand we didn't have much entertainment, up front. Where was I? Oh, yeah, right. So Powell says, still outside the tent, ‘Who is it?’ Do you boys understand that we were in Korea, seventy-five thousand miles from anywhere? Nobody calls anybody at the front, just the Old Man or the chaplain, maybe. And here Powell gets a call and he wants to know who it is?"

    This question makes even Morris shake his head and he drains his bottle and requests another. We all take the opportunity to do likewise, and nobody yells at us. Everybody lights up.

    "Well, the clerk comes to the flap of the tent and looks at Powell, then goes back in. Pretty soon Captain Johns comes out and looks at your platoon sergeant and says, 'It's General MacArthur! He asked for you.! He's on the line, right now! He wants to speak to you, personally!' The Captain is sort of pale and he's talking fast and kind of low, like MacArthur can hear him. You'd have thought he'd just spoken to the Holy Ghost. The rest of us didn't know what to think.

    "Well, Powell takes a couple more drags off his cigarette and then he knocks the fire off the end and field-strips it! God Almighty! He's taking his time. Captain Johns looks really nervous and the rest of us have our mouths open. Jesus, give me a cigarette." A cook handed Morris a fresh pack.

    "O.K. Powell goes into the tent and the rest of us move up close to the flap and we hear, 'Powell, sir.' Then we wait, maybe two minutes. Then, 'I can't do that, General. We've been through this before, sir, several times. There's no chance I'm going to do that…. All respect, sir, but I won't serve as an officer.' We all take deep breaths and look at one another. Then, 'All right, General, I'll write when I get the chance. We're pretty busy up here right now, sir.'

    "Well, that was about it and he said goodbye to General MacArthur and came out of the tent and lit up. He could tell by our faces that we wanted information. He said that he'd been offered brass again and his father had asked MacArthur to find out why his son hadn't been writing to him. He smiled that little ****-eating grin and twirled his hatchet in the air and caught it by the handle."

    Sergeant first-class Morris drained his bottle and looked us recruits over. The coastal sky was coming on to night quickly. The head-cook shook his head slightly. I could see by the newly-lighted bare bulb over the steps that he was not smiling. He hadn't had that much to drink, but his eyes were cast down and watery.

    "I just thought you guys ought to know," he said. "I think you ought to know about some things." His face was slack, without expression. The other cooks said nothing, but went up the steps. One of them called back over his shoulder.

    "Come on, Sarge," he said. "Come on and let's go to town. Let's get dressed and go to town." The head-cook got up slowly from the lawn and climbed the steps. The cook who had spoken to him now looked at us and said, quietly, "You guys can go on back to your barracks."

    We walked away, tired, grateful for the end of the day. I was glad I didn't have to go to town and drink with Sergeant Morris.



  2. #2
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    Re: Sergeants

    I don't know where you got the idea that Officers Candidate School (OCS) was a route to West Point, but I suggest that you put it back and walk away. OCS is a completely different way to become an officer, and pointers refer to OCS graduates as "ninety day wonders," because that's how long it takes for OCS to mint a Second Lieutenant as compared to four years for the Point.

  3. #3
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    Re: Sergeants

    Hey Al,

    First, welcome to writers.net. It's really great if you post shorter excerpts so that you can get a detailed critique. When an excerpt is this long it's hard to focus or remember. I'll try my best. Reading this brings to mind the army. I can see expierience in this. This was back in the old days, before a lot of changes in the military. Sometimes I'm glad for that, and others it's very interesting to read about. I think you've done a great job writing this. It could use some tightening, but I kinda like it. Was this where you were stationed? Some of it reads smoothly, but it's a little rough around the edges. The first thing I noticed is the use of had or varients thereof: would....etc. Those I think should be changed.

  4. #4
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    Re: Sergeants

    First thing, this is quite good and held my interest to the end of the piece (which doesn't happen often for a guy with as short an attention span as I have.)

    If this is fiction, rather than memoir, you've started in the wrong place. Everything down to when you started on KP is backstory and can be dropped in as the cook tells about the Sarge. Also, in general your dialog is good but could loosen up a bit. People speak in sentence fragments and with incorrect grammar.

    The most challenging issue I see is that you're headhopping (switching points of view from character to character) a lot. In addition to 1st person (I) you tell us the thoughts of both the Sgt and the cook. The effect is disconcerting. IMO, stay in first person. Let the other character's show their thoughts with dialog and action.

    Stan

  5. #5
    Amy Lou
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    Re: Sergeants

    Hi Al,
    you were so kind to take a look at my work and I would love to return the favor, but I am not experienced enough. LOL I do know that I enjoyed reading this, even though it's not what I would normally pick up. Your voice is clear and writing very polished, I expected that much. I wish I could offer more.
    Amy

  6. #6
    martin shaw
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    Re: Sergeants

    OOh, looks good, gonna read when I come back from work.. I also like the 'olive drab'

  7. #7
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    Re: Sergeants

    Joe, actually OCS is, or was, an indirect route to West Point. Once the ninety-day wonder became a 2nd lieutenant he tried to get some experience under his belt, as well as looking for a sponsor. With the proper sponsorship he would have a shot at the Point, especially since this young man was the son of a general.

  8. #8
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    Re: Sergeants

    Author, Stan, and Amy; I do apologize for the length. I thought I might slip it through. It's the first story of the series, and the longest. The rest are much shorter. It is strictly memoir. I'll look at the headhopping situation. I thought telling through dialogue might soften the points of view. The conversations are clear to me, even after all the years. A man may not remember the name of his first grade teacher, but he'll never forget his first platoon sergeant.

    And Amy, don't worry about a lack of experience in critiquing. It's only expressing your thoughts on how a piece made you feel.

  9. #9
    martin shaw
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    Re: Sergeants

    Yah, good good good. Well polished, but thats not the issue for me. Dialogues good. You show restraint, which I cant do; it leaves enough to tackle the plot, or wotever? You've posted a lot; Its a lot to take in without reading the whole book to get perspective.


    What can I say... Its soo marketable. I am green. Its a man thing, and not just because of the soldier, ting! I'd say from retirement down tooooo, um, err , late twenties, would buy it.

    Ya gotta rocknroll with this, tis good, dude.

  10. #10
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    Re: Sergeants

    Thanks, Martin. I'm glad you saw something in it you liked. The more I think about putting this collection together the more I might be wasting my time. What I mean is, we have young people fighting and dying in two wars at the moment. Who would want to read about some old fuds cold-war memories? I guess at the least it keeps me writing, like an excercise. I appreciate the comment.

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